Kairo - A Minimalist Exercise in Puzzle Gaming

Grainy, misty monolithic landmasses hovering in a field of white. Ethereal music droning like a waterfall sucked into the vacuum of space. You're alone. You don't know who you are, or where you are. The only gameplay prompt is another island of stone in the distance. Your movements are limited. There is no narrative, no introduction, and no weapon.

This is how the computer and iOS game, Kairo, begins.

Looking to the Skies of Kairo

Game developer Locked Door Puzzle (run by Richard Perrin in London) cunningly forges stark, minimalist canvases upon which sounds, music, and visuals coerce you to apply a haunting narrative. It's a game you experience on your own, justifying what you see around you with your imagination until some carefully planted cue suggests otherwise. Very few gaming experiences permit you to draw upon blank environments to summon your own narrative -- not even the “anti-game” Dear Esther does this, for its insufferable narrator blathers throughout the experience. Kairo offers no clear answers. One area, for instance, encourages you to slowly trot along a winding, concrete stairwell that hovers ominously amid black infinite. While you continue downward (although why you'd want to do this is somwhat suspect, seeing as how it is just floating there in total darkness...), you hear a broken radio frequency flicker beneath the bellowing sounds of Wounds’ impressive, glacial soundtrack. You soon realize the radio is emanating from a white obelisk, splintering through the black sky. You can't make out the transmission, and you don't see any discernable antenna, so nothing of meaning can be derived from this. You aren't certain if you should stay there a while longer to see if the transmission clears, or if you ought to continue forward (obviously, you have to continue forward). But there is never a sense of urgency in Kairo -- it is a place out of time, out of context.

Where narrative reinforcement may be missing, moving through and exploring the world of Kairo is stunning with rich -- if, in actuality, stark -- world-building. Soon after the first minor puzzle of the game, you proceed along a bridge that tapers off into darkness. As you move across it, bracing for some ghastly surprise, the scarce sound effects dim as great pillars slice through the underground sky and bury their endpoints into the unseen ground. This effect implies your movement across the bridge is actively morphing the landscape, bringing structure to the bridge as you proceed to the other side. It's a beautifully scripted sequence -- the kind of thing that burrows in your consciousness and creeps back out in dreams. Furthermore, soundscapes and environmental elements are oftentimes mystically disconnected to your expectations that add to the game’s intrigue. At one point, I found myself entering a room with what sounded like a waterfall echoing along stone somewhere around the bend in a corridor. Upon turning and entering the cavern of this sound's origin, the environment betrayed my expectation of water. Instead, I found a high stone edifice with cascading rectangular sheets. As an experience that builds upon its foundation of simple geometric designs, I continued to enjoy these optical-audial tricks.

At its heart, Kairo is a first-person puzzle game. As the game progresses, you pass through several puzzles, none of which are game-breakingly obtuse like the classic series Myst (for which I absolutely needed the hand-holding of a game guide). With the suggestion of mechanics involved in Kairo’s strange world, I began to understand the world it presented to me as some kind of infrastructure for awaking... Something. Sparks spill out from an illuminating panel high above my field of view, tiles on the ground “ding” with life as I pass over them, movable lanterns active beams of energy when positioned just right -- these operational components kept me interested. So only after meandering through the first leg of puzzles does the game begin to reveal itself, and as you complete them, the game continues to quench your thirst for answers. (It also helps that the completion animations and sound verifications for completing these puzzles is very self-aggrandizing -- so of course that makes you feel good).

If you're at all interested in puzzle games, Kairo is a terrific experience. But it really shines as a game stripped down to its essence, allowing the player to move freely and unburdened with excessive gameplay baggage. The visuals, the sounds, and the music -- as bare as they are -- help you imagine and place your importance in this world. Perhaps it's best to understand the game behind the name's meaning -- likely derived from the Greek word kairos, which implies "the right, opportune moment". In the word's context of time, Kairo is a theater designed for the player to perform an action at the right time to initaite something special. On a high level, every game designed is like this, but in Kairo's world, you believe you're really contributing to something grand, something that, in the end, may reward your efforts in bringing meaning to it.